Art by Redline XIII
EVE developer CCP is embroiled in a comedy of internal contradiction in the second month of its scorched-earth campaign to break all the toys in New Eden. It all began with an ‘invasion’ of Drifter NPCs in late June, compelling EVE’s largest coalition of players, the Imperium, to withdraw from war in the northern region of Tribute to defend their territory from this unexpected threat. Shortly after the Imperium’s arrival home in Delve and the surrounding regions, the Drifters ceased their hostilities. The contrast between CCP’s NPC pseudo-invasion and the actual player-created invasion that it brought to a grinding halt created controversy for the developers. But CCP – through interviews and public comments by CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson and Community Manager CCP Falcon – made clear it did not care whether players were pleased with the developers’ decision to climb in the sandbox of EVE and play against them.
Using the Drifter event as a convenient lore springboard, CCP announced a week later that the local chat feature in nullsec space would be altered from instantly showing all players within a system to a “delayed” model – a misnomer since players do not show up in local chat ever unless they decide to type a comment. The announcement produced an extreme divergence of opinion among players. Reddit erupted with ludicrously hyperbolic proclamations that the new chat ‘blackout’ would cause legions of disaffected bittervets to resubscribe after their seven-year breaks from EVE. Following the implementation of the new system, these same Redditors declared that ‘blackout’ was The Most Fun Ever That They’d Ever Had In EVE (Ever). Meanwhile, the first weekend of the ‘blackout’ revealed considerably less enthusiasm from the broader community, with Sunday logins failing to top 30k for the first time in thirteen years.
Talking With Hilmar
Undeterred by player angst, Hilmar and Falcon appeared for an illuminating interview on Talking in Stations later in the month to explain their recent decisions.
“We’re actually experiencing right now this month of July, we have the highest [Monthly Active Users] and [Daily Active Users] in the past five years,” Hilmar said. (Narrator voice: This claim is highly dubious for many reasons). Hilmar continued, “ [There will be] Much more rapid fire action from CCP than you’re used to. Ideally something should be changing every week, [some] changes will be wildly unpopular… some will be wildly popular behind the scenes.”
In other words, changes may be “wildly unpopular” with players but “wildly popular” among the developers – a curious design philosophy for a subscription-based service whose subscriptions, we presume, are not paid by the developers.
For his part, Falcon said, “If it was up to me, [EVE] would be a horrible, harsh, dark, dystopian nasty place where bad things happen… if it was up to me, EVE would be an absolute hellscape of terror and horribleness.”
A month after the ‘blackout,’ CCP announced major changes to the way capital and supercapital ships travel. Whereas previously any ship – even the lowly rookie corvette – could fit a Cynosural Field Generator and use it to call in caps and supers, CCP will remove that capability from all ship types other than Force Recon cruisers and Black Ops Battleships. As with the ‘blackout,’ this change is loudly supported by Redditors and some on the EVE Online forums who emphasize the negative effects they hope this will have on PVE-focused characters. However, as with each of the recent changes, this one may bring unintended consequences to combat and engagement among nullsec players.
Rounding out what we’ve seen so far of CCP’s ‘chaos’ agenda is a set of significant new tax hikes ostensibly intended to fund obscure NPC lore but, from a design standpoint, actually intended to stabilize EVE’s economy by removing excess ISK from circulation. The Transaction Tax and Brokerage Fee for each transaction rose to 5% – a net 100% increase from the previous taxes (prior to any effect from trade skills). While these increases can be avoided by trading in Citadels rather than NPC stations, they will likely have the hardest impact on newer players who reflexively use the Jita and Amarr station markets to sell the fruits of their labors. Combined with recent heavy nerfs to ships traditionally used to farm NPC bounties, these increases will undoubtedly have the intended effect of depressing the economy and limiting inflation. Of all the changes in the ‘Age of Chaos,’ this may be the only one to show evidence of long-term strategy.
The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much
An awkward development for Hilmar’s and Falcon’s messaging emerged in a Talking in Stations interview on August 16 in which Senior Game Designer CCP Rise directly contradicts numerous claims from his colleagues’ interview on July 26.
“Before long, especially with this change, we’re going to be looking at where to tune rewards back up to make sure that it’s worth it for people to be out gathering resources and shooting rats because we’re going to be in a deficit, pretty soon, probably,” Rise said, indicating the developers are, in fact, on the verge of losing money over the recent changes. However, Rise said, “… That’s great, actually, it’s… I mean, if we let it sit it’d be bad, but it’s a good place for us to be. A lot of the time we’re really hamstrung [on the Development team] by not being able to give out rewards because we have [ISK] faucet issues… but if we’re in a deficit we have free rewards to give away.”
Panelist Carneros, leader of The Bastion, asked whether his alliance’s players were justified in feeling like their preference for capital ships was being nerfed in favor of a push toward subcapital dominance.
Crushing the hopes of literally dozens of shrill rabblerousers on Reddit, Rise replied, “No, we’re not trying to say we’d rather people did small gangs… We would love to have more capital fights.”
In response to a question from Brisc Rubal, member of CSM 13 and pilot for The Initiative about whether ‘blackout’ is permanent, Rise commented, “I don’t think it’s the whole solution [to the economic problems]. We lost half of capital/supercapital [ratting] yield before blackout [due to capital nerfs in the spring]. It’s not like we need blackout to keep the [ISK] faucet issue out of the picture.”
And to a final question from Brisc about whether small or large nullsec alliances experienced a greater impact from the recent changes, Rise said, “The big organized groups are going to handle change better than small groups… Midsize groups that are trying to do logistics on a shoestring… it’s definitely going to be much harder for them to adjust than the big groups.”
Is It Really ‘Chaos?’
It is difficult not to imagine Hilmar and Falcon tipped their hand too far in the July 26 Talking in Stations interview. While posturing as bold visionaries and agents of ‘chaos,’ the duo actually reinforced the perception that CCP’s development process revolves around reactionary tweaks and nerfs rather than long-term strategic goals. Furthermore, it is unclear whether Hilmar, Falcon, or anyone at CCP has considered that there are various forms of ‘chaos,’ not all of which are desirable. Let’s consider three examples:
- Controlled Chaos: Militaries can create chaos during wartime by deceiving their enemies. For example, Allied forces during WWII moved fake tanks and airplanes all over France, Norway, and other countries, ‘leaking’ false intelligence in the process to deceive Axis forces into redirecting to areas where the Allies did not plan to be. This seems to be closest to the sense Hilmar and Falcon intend when they use the term ‘chaos.’
- Uncontrolled Chaos: A ship’s rudder or engines can break during a hurricane – or the entire ship can break in half – creating ‘chaos’ that leads to highly undesirable outcomes. In this case, external influences determine the outcomes more than any planning or preparation. This type of chaos might very well be closer to what CCP is achieving than the previous example, particularly if unintended consequences eclipse the original intentions.
- Fake or Apparent Chaos: This can emerge in a variety of ways due to misinformation or erroneous beliefs. In Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, the conjurer Prospero uses tricks of perception to cause several characters to imagine things that are not actually happening. This is empty showmanship and – like much of Shakespeare – depends on a lazy deus ex machina to settle the plot. This is comparable to the abortive Drifter invasion, during which players realized CCP had not even developed fully functional AI for the invaders. In retrospect, for all the fake ‘chaos’ created by Drifters shooting Keepstars, there was never any real threat to the nullsec empires. Realizing this in hindsight erodes future confidence that anything CCP rolls out should be taken seriously.
‘Chaos’ is not inherently good or bad, nor is tossing the term around a convincing smoke-screen for a design team that has run out of ideas. Looking at the changes of the past six weeks, and listening to the explanations from Hilmar and Falcon, we are left to surmise that the question guiding CCP’s development process is, “What is the easiest nerf we can patch in that might connect in some way to the problem in front of us?” CCP’s concept of ‘chaos’ seems to assume a closed system in which a static player base is infinitely malleable and will adapt to all changes with more or less equal persistence. There is no evidence to suggest this is a good assumption. When players interpret CCP’s ‘chaos’ as incompetence, dumbassery, or hostility, they refuse to adapt and will move on to something other than EVE – as CCP Rise acknowledged in as many words.
To summarize, that word Hilmar and Falcon keep using… I do not think it means what they think it means.
‘Chaos’ Is Peculiarly Isolated
We might be forgiven for imagining that game-transforming chaos would extend to the farthest corners of EVE. We might even pretend for a moment that the stagnation CCP aims to correct in nullsec can be observed just as clearly in other regions of New Eden. Even as the developers bemoan easy NPC bounties and Rorqual mining in nullsec, similar activities continue unabated in highsec: Incursion communities, endless L4 mission running, Orca-boosted moon mining fleets vacuuming up rare ores like so many space Roombas, profitable DED 4/10 escalations, reasonably lucrative exploration sites, and zero-risk event sites. Strangely, though, the Reddit warriors who are always yammering about ‘krabs’ and lamenting that EVE is not dangerous enough never seem to care that according to data released three years ago by CCP Quant 75% of EVE’s population lives in highsec and spends all day printing ISK in perfect safety. It doesn’t matter that highsec is not as lucrative as nullsec. If the health of the game is on the line and risk-free ISK is the chief cause of stagnation, CCP loses credibility every day that highsec remains untouched by the ‘Age of Chaos.’
By focusing virtually all of its relentless chaos crusade on nullsec, CCP seems to tacitly acknowledge something nullsec dwellers have claimed for years with (mostly) trollish insincerity: EVE is nullsec. Most changes in the ‘Age of Chaos’ have targeted nullsec either exclusively (Drifter invasion, ‘blackout’) or primarily (Cynos). Only the tax increase affects players indiscriminately, and it is also the only avoidable change. Despite laughable lip-service to “[making] the game easier for new players” while making it harder for veterans, as Hilmar said on Talking in Stations, the evidence points to new players having the same terrible experience they have always had. The New Player Experience still reeks on ice even with the cosmetic Agency update, while new players who do their shopping and selling in Jita and Amarr are now paying heavy taxes that veterans with more ISK can absorb more easily. Curiously, only nullsec seems to be worthy of CCP’s special attention. CCP’s claim that the ‘Age of Chaos’ will revitalize EVE would be more convincing if it affected anyone outside of nullsec.
‘Chaos’ Is Not Enough
‘Chaos’ is not a plan or a direction for EVE, and it is not a concept that gives players a reason to continue investing in a game that now routinely nerfs, breaks, or eliminates systems, skills, and ships that they spent many hours and lots of money working toward. Whereas in past years the developers delivered regular expansions with new content and enticement for players to engage more fully, the ‘Age of Chaos’ serves up a lukewarm bowl of nerfs without any accompanying incentive for players to overcome the new challenges. CCP must explain its design goals, or develop those goals if, as we might suspect, they do not exist.
Hilmar, Falcon, CCP writ large, and the Reddit brigade habitually dismiss any criticism of CCP’s design decisions with a bunch of vigorous but unserious hand-waving. If CCP is serious about reforming the game, a little introspection would not hurt. CCP should listen to Reddit less and the CSM more – especially during the ‘Age of Chaos.’ Otherwise, it might indeed turn out that they will have earned their own failure.